Many important characteristics of a research university contribute quality at Southern, but none compete with faculty for first place. To be sure, without students there is no university. Our raison d’etre is students. But after that we must concede the central importance of excellent faculty.
The university is the faculty: faculty who care, faculty who contribute to the body of knowledge in their various fields, faculty who can stand in front of a lecture hall full of students and inspire, and then return to their study, studio, or laboratory to create and share insight with the broader community. After sharing it locally to the university, they share it nationally and internationally. These are the people who power the boat. Our leaders know this. Look at the leaders who worked diligently to bring and/or develop household names; people like Buckminster Fuller, John Gardner, Richard Russo, Rodney Jones and many others. Some are still here, some lured away by success. Maybe we did not fight hard enough to keep them. We always should. Their names inspire a commitment to excellence for those that knew or know them – and there are many – thankfully too many to name.
Recruited like quarterbacks, paid like coaches. In six years I have heard the name Bucky, Fuller, or Buckminster Fuller an average of once a day… nearly two thousand times. Someone with insight hired a person of vision. I wonder if a hiring committee participated in the process, or was it just raw leadership going after raw excellence. This is backward looking though. We need to look forward. Our future is at stake.
Academic boldness is difficult to find and a challenge to implement, with standards of hiring, labor contracts, and fixed raises with little or no flexibility for excellence. However, excellent faculty members set a standard, and build a school’s reputation. They are two legged marketers, excellence on feet, everywhere promoting SIUC’s quality, not because of an excellent contract, not because of our excellent students, not because of excellent facilities, not because of an excellent location, but simply because faculty members who represent the best of the best, disciplined minds with productive intellectual lives, cannot tolerate the status quo. Ground breaking thinkers and doers were and are right here at Southern. And excellence begets excellence. Academic courage and boldness are required to build this kind of faculty. People frequently are afraid of local excellence. Forces work against excellence all the time. I am not sure why excellence incites fear, but it does, especially in those of average capability, drive, insight or talent.
Universities are not the only places where this occurs. It takes a special organization to allow excellence to flourish. This is not to say that excellence in our civil service employees or administrative and professional staff is not required, but they are not typically recruited in the national or international market place, and they are rarely drawn from further away than the campus. People will read about our sparkling buildings and precision in our financial sheets if and only if excellent faculty members are building the reputation of Southern in the four corners of the world, one idea or accomplishment, one piece or performance, at a time. Other necessary and important characteristics fall into place. Faculty must be first, and the best of them are not always easy to love.
Sometimes good faculty members are persnickety, want things their way, demand much from the organization, and expect to be treated with deference. Right or wrong, it is the way of the academic marketplace and good universities tolerate it, excellent universities seek out people of the highest intellect, sometimes in spite of the challenges they present. There are many examples, both locally and around the world, where exuberant faculties make the reputation of the university, because they are the university. This is not magic, but calculus. However, the prickliness of some great faculty members sometimes makes us long for the merely competent workmen, rather than the intellectual engineer. The literature on faculty work life suggests that the best teachers are frequently strong researchers, scholars, artists, and servants to their professions and the extended public. The idea that faculty excellence is the foundational core of a research university is not new or radical. Leaders understood it 150 years ago.
Governments cannot make universities by enactments of laws: Nor corporations by erections of edifices: The church cannot create them under the authority of heaven: The flattering eulogies of orators cannot adorn them with learning: Newspapers cannot puff them into being. Learned men-scholars- these are the only workmen who can build up universities. Provide charters and endowments- the necessary protection and capital – provide books and apparatus- the necessary tools: Then seek out sufficient scholars, and leave them to their work, as the intellectual engineers who alone are competent to do it.
–Henry P. Tappan (1805-1881) President, University of Michigan 1858, lecture, Christian Library Association 22 June, quoted in Richard Hofstadter and William Smith (eds.) American Higher Education: A Documentary History Volume II 1961, p. 519
Having excellent faculty is the only thing that can make Southern an excellent university. Nothing else will sustain a first rate research university for our region.